There are formidable challenges ahead, but we need not panic

The robots have started to arrive and more are coming. In an age of specialisation and accelerating change, where the great majority of students know less and less, dialogue with the Christian version of the wisdom of the ages should not only be mutually beneficial, but is actually necessary.

If society’s leaders are radically uncertain about what constitutes human flourishing, or bitterly divided about the type of society we are working towards, we should be acknowledging these differences and engaging in dialogue about these challenges, not ignoring them and half-consciously following whatever is the predominant consensus at any moment.

In his useful book Connected World, Fr Philip Larrey, chair of logic and epistemology at the Pontifical Lateran University, and his interlocutors introduce us to many different worlds that are being changed by new technologies and by automation. I have no specialised knowledge on automation, or modern technology or artificial intelligence, but I am fascinated, and increasingly so – one of that vast majority of people who are watching with interest and some apprehension as this new tidal wave starts to move.

Most Christians are not doomsdayers, although that option is not outlawed. Indeed, because Christians believe original sin is universal – ie, that every human being has a flaw running through heart and mind so that none of us is completely innocent – we should be inclined to scepticism.

Because we believe that the Creator God is good and reasonable we are slow to believe the very worst, despite the evil and suffering around us. So I am not too concerned that malign super-intelligent robots will escape, or be released from human control.

But I am wary of what evil persons will be able to do with deep-minded robots. We already have military drones, which are presently used more for good than for evil. Hostile cyber attacks are a feature of modern life.

I don’t believe we shall ever be able to create a robot which is self-conscious, able to love or hate, able to choose between good and evil.

Computers and robots are never evil in themselves, although they can be programmed to perform actions which we rightly call evil. They can process and retain immense amounts of information.

A computer was able to beat the world champion at Go, a Chinese game which is much more complicated than chess. It was trained to learn from its mistakes and played a million practice games against itself in preparation of the challenge.

Probably the changes coming from the new wave of technological development are unprecedented. A couple of experts, a prominent philosopher and a computer analyst claim we are about to enter a period of change like the Cambrian Age, which saw the spectacular beginnings of many higher animal species about 500 million years ago. As the Cambrian age was an explosion, this is a large claim.

Progress in technology has always meant that some skills are superseded and that new skills will be needed. But will there be more jobs created than destroyed? Where will those jobs be? Will there be workers available with the requisite skills? In the Western world, we live in societies that are democratically ruled, allow substantial freedom for action and opinion, and where there is no state control of the economy, although government expenditures, tax policies and procedural controls are hugely important.

All this means that majority opinion will have to consent ultimately to the pace and forms of automation. Already Trump and Brexit have shown that a strong majority of elite opinion will not necessarily prevail with the majority of the voters. And we might only be at the start of this story.

The market has worked wonders not only in the Western world, but also, for example, in China, India and South Korea. But automation means the free market faces new challenges, and I suspect new paradigms will be needed to prevent economies becoming trapped and damaged by their own successes, or by popular revolts and rejection.

For my concluding remarks I rely heavily on a briefing note prepared in December 2016 by the McKinsey Global Institute on “Technology, Jobs and the Future of Work”.

A little fable captures the nub of one dilemma. The proprietor and the union leader are inspecting a heavily automated and robotised factory. The boss points out to the union leader that the robots will never go on strike. The union leader acknowledges that this is true, but adds that neither will they buy any of the cars built in the factory.

Already we have robots doing the housework (3.7 million sold in 2015) and we are threatened with driverless taxis in 10 years’ time. Perhaps. How many people now would want a driverless taxi or bus to take their children to school? How many accidents would derail such a programme?

While every silver lining has a cloud, we should be clear that the news is not all bad. Robotics and artificial intelligence can bring greater efficiency, better safety and higher productivity. There are real potential benefits together with all the uncertainty.

McKinsey believes that we have time, as only about five per cent of present jobs can be fully automated, although this could rise to 15 or 20 per cent for middle-skill categories. It estimates that 60 per cent of all jobs have at least 30 per cent of activities which are technically open to automation, but the pace of implementation of these technologies is far below the theoretical maximum – only 18 per cent of capacity in America and 12 per cent in Europe.

Two different developments in two continents reflect something of the pluses and minuses of this process of automation, which has already started. A 2011 McKinsey study showed that in France the internet had destroyed 500,000 jobs in the previous 15 years, but that it had created 1.2 million others: 2.4 jobs created for every job destroyed. But those who are able to go into independent work or undertake entrepreneurial activity need education and learning capacity and this is not universal.

The Scotsman Angus Deaton, who won the Nobel Prize for Economics in 2015, recently published a paper with his economist wife, Anne Case, showing that, between 1999 and 2013, 490,000 extra deaths from suicide occurred among high-school educated white men in the United States. Drugs and alcohol enhanced the tragedy, but so did the decline in social capital from family breakdown, extra-nuptial births, widespread pornography, addictive computer games and the decline in religious faith and practice.

As well as the personal tragedies that occur, we have to remember that too many losers and radical inequality will provoke huge political changes and the bitterness will increase.

In Fr Larrey’s Connected World, 15 topics take us in different directions from the same starting point of accelerating technological change: ranging from cyber security to the future of design, from the social media to nuclear instruments.

We need time for a lot of discussion, diffusion of information, resolution of political differences, and so on. We need time to muddle through.

Cardinal George Pell is Prefect of the Vatican Secretariat for the Economy

This article first appeared in the June 2 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here